Jolly Rogering: Inside The All-Male 'The Pirates of Penzance'
A rollickingly all-male The Pirates of Penzance is setting sail for Sydney, direct from London’s West End. As Matthew Gent, who plays the dashing romantic lead Frederic, tells Garrett Bithell, the production has skewed his perception – in fact only a male Mabel feels right.
The Pirates of Penzance is classic Gilbert and Sullivan: popular, enduring and charmingly silly. The comic opera is centred on the dashing Frederic who, as a child, was apprenticed to a band of pirates-with-a-conscience by his nurse. On reaching 21, he rejoices that he has fulfilled his indentures and is now free to return to respectable society. Meeting Mabel, the daughter of the ‘very model of a modern Major-General’, they fall instantly in love. Frederic finds out, however, that he was born on February 29, and so technically he has only had five birthdays rather than the 21 required by his apprentice contract.
Gilbert and Sullivan constantly updated their work with satirical, social and political references, and Sasha Regan’s all-male production of The Pirates of Penzance certainly continues that tradition. Transferring from London’s tiny, fringe Union Theatre to Wilton’s Music Hall, it’s now set to sail into Sydney after touring around Australia.
“We’ve had a lot of fun so far,” Matthew Gent, who plays Frederic, tells SX. “It’s my first time out here, and it feels like we’ve been everywhere – we’ve done a proper cross section of places, some bigger than others! We went to Mt Gambier, and when we arrived we said, ‘okay, let’s explore the place’. Well, we were back 20 minutes later!”
Indeed after seasons in Canberra, Mt Gambier, Renmark, Adelaide, Perth and then Wollongong, the production opens at Sydney Theatre on November 8. “The show is really charming and good fun,” Gent says. “Unfortunately I play Frederic in the show, so there’s no dress for me. But it’s such a laugh and the boys absolutely love doing it.”
Playing Gent’s love interest is Alan Richardson as Mabel. “Does he look good in a frock? He would always say he doesn’t, but he looks fab,” Gent laughs. “Honestly, he’s an absolute joy to work with; he makes my life so easy. He comes on stage, and literally all I can do is smile at him, and just react to everything he’s doing, which is a really lovely. I get on so well with him.”
However, as Gent asserts, there’s nothing drag-like about this production. The approach goes with subtlety and innocence over parody or aggressive sexuality. “What I really like about it is it’s absolutely not drag. I think with drag there’s always an element of sexuality and ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’.
“I went to an all-boys school when I was younger, and whenever we did a play, inevitably someone would have to play a girl, because there are girl parts. And you just kind of get on with it – so the way this show works is we almost ignore the fact that it’s boys in dresses and just play it really sincerely. The boys have skirts, but they’re not wigged – so you can see they’re boys. By doing that it’s a little bit more genuine and everything you find funny is funny because it’s well-observed character rather than heightened camp.”
Nevertheless, while the production is never overtly political, it does challenge audience perceptions.
“I’m not really sure how political Sasha meant to be with it – I think it’s quite innocent,” Gent asserts. “I suppose it does challenge you perceptions a little bit but, like I said, because it’s not draggy or aggressive you’re almost forced to accept it. Indeed a lot of people have said that they forgot it was an all-male cast because they were just taken along with the story.
“But I think it’s really good to poke at people’s discomforts – it’s healthy.”
Similarly, even though Gent and Richardson kiss three times in the production, it’s hardly going into the red on the homoerotic scale. “The love story is ridiculous anyway, so I don’t think it’s particularly homoerotic,” Gent says. “Our first kiss is quite spontaneous and surprises the audience, and the second one is far more sincere because Frederic is going to have to leave her. So it’s a genuine, honest moment – it’s hardly erotic.”
Graduating from drama school in London in 2008, Gent has performed in three West End shows including Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd. However Frederic is his first lead role. As he admits, the all-male cast doesn’t only challenge audience perceptions – he now finds the prospect of a female Mabel quite unsettling. “I had a really odd moment with our stage manager,” he giggles. “She was standing in doing some of the lighting, and so I was standing opposite her; and it was really odd doing my song with an actual girl. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not sure how I feel about this actually’!”
[Photos] The all-male cast of The Pirate of Penzance (top, centre) and Matthew Gent as Frederic (right) and Alan Richardson as Mabel (bottom image). Photos: Kay Young
Sasha Regan’s The Pirates of Penzance, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, from November 8 – 24. Bookings at www.sydneytheatre.com.au.